To blunt criticism about its policies in the Xinjiang region, the Chinese Communist Party has adopted a set of measures ranging from denial to opinion management.
A cursory scan through Chinese State media talks about the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region as a place that’s becoming more secure, where tourism is booming, infrastructure is getting upgraded and poverty is reducing. That’s the Xinjiang that Beijing wants the world to talk about. Unfortunately for the Chinese leadership, that hasn’t been the case over the past few months.
In mid-August, experts from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination questioned the policies adopted by the Chinese Party-state with regard to the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Members of the committee argued that there had been credible reports that, “upwards of a million people were being held in so-called counter-extremism centres and another two million had been forced into so-called ‘re-education camps’ for political and cultural indoctrination.” All this, of course, is being done in the name of stability and combating extremism and terrorism.
Situated in northwestern China bordering the stans to the west, Xinjiang is home to over 11.3 million ethnic Uighurs. These are largely Muslims of Turkic origin, who have their own language and culture. The region is also home to roughly one-third of China’s natural gas and oil reserves, along with key mineral deposits. In addition, Xinjiang is the Belt and Road Initiative’s gateway to the West. Given this, stability and integration i.e. policing and sinicization, have been key planks of the Communist Party’s policies in Xinjiang. These assumed greater significance as the security situation in the region deteriorated early in President Xi Jinping’s first term and in the backdrop of the escalating conflict in Syria.
From 2011 onwards, there were incidents of knife attacks targeting the security establishment and civilians in different parts of Xinjiang. The situation escalated when in October 2013, a car crashed into Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The government called it a suicide attack. That was followed by the March 2014 mass stabbing at the Kunming Railway Station, which left 31 people dead. State media described the attack as “China’s 9/11.” The Chinese government pinned these attacks on what they said were Uighur separatists and militants, operating under the umbrella of a group called the the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
In response, the Communist Party intensified its “strike hard and punish” campaign, which was initiated after the July 2009 riots in Urumqi. This meant increased security presence, police raids, expanded surveillance, enforcement of strict codes of behaviour, dress and appearance, forced sinicization and restrictions on religious freedom. Along with this, sometime in 2014, the government also began a campaign called “transformation through re-education.” This initiative arose in tandem with the de-extremification efforts that were underway, but intensified following the appointment of Chen Quanguo as Party Secretary in Xinjiang in August 2016. Chen had previously been in charge in Tibet and brought to Xinjiang the grid-style social management system that he’d implemented there, along with an expansion of the policy of political re-education. What this meant was the establishment of large numbers of internment camps where individuals who were religiously inclined, viewed as “problem persons” or deemed to be influenced by foreign or extremist thought were detained and put through political re-education. In an excellent paperpublished this year, Adrian Zenz, a researcher from European School of Culture and Theology, traces the expansion of this re-education campaign, which he argues is “completely extrajudicial.”
It’s the efforts of researchers like Zenz, dedicated journalists, human rights campaigners and accounts of former detainees and relatives of detainees that have led to greater international focus on the situation in Xinjiang. Consequently, soon after the UN committee’s discussion in August, the chorus of criticism against the Chinese government’s policies has grown.
The new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet wants the Chinese government to permit international monitors in the region. In the US, senior Trump administration officials have criticized the Chinese government. Congressional committees have held key hearings on Xinjiang, with Senator Marco Rubio leading the call for the US to impose sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. Reports also suggest that exports of components critical for expanding China’s video surveillance system could be restricted. Protests against Chinese policies in Xinjiang have been reported in India, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan and Pakistan. Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim has argued that it’s time to “start highlighting these issues and seek this understanding from the Chinese authorities.”
Despite the Chinese leadership being aware that its overwhelming economic might helps shaping the political and economic incentives of leaders around the world, Beijing has dug into its toolkit and adopted a series of measures to blunt the criticism. These efforts can be classified under three categories — denial and deflection, obfuscation and opinion management.
The first approach was witnessed in the responses by the Chinese delegation to the UN committee. Responding to the committee, Chinese delegates stressed that allegations of excessive use of force, torture, arbitrary detention and disappearance of ethnic minorities were “against the fact.” They added that there was no arbitrary detention or lack of freedom of religious belief. The deflection component of this strategy, meanwhile, comprises the near exclusive focus on positive reportage by Chinese media and officials’ desire to shift the discussion towards issues of economic development.
The second approach i.e. obfuscation, refers to Chinese officials lashing out at terminology such as detention centers, re-education camps and internment camps, claiming that these were, in fact, “professional training centers, educational centers.” In addition, parallels are drawn with Western security and surveillance efforts and the failure of Europe to crackdown on religious extremism and homegrown terrorism. This is a strand of argument that the Chinese government has held on to. It essentially states that rather than criticize the Chinese policy on countering radicalisation, other states could potentially find it instructive. None of this takes into account that unlike the Chinese system, liberal, democratic societies, however flawed, have institutions that act to check state power and protect liberties. Along with this, Chinese officials have argued countries and international organisations must respect China’s sovereignty and lashed out at “anti-China” forces for spreading “defamatory rumors” owing to their “ulterior motives.”
The third and final component of the Chinese approach is opinion management. This has involved three distinct sets of actions that compliment each other. The first involves lending a veneer of lawfulness to the re-education policy. This was attempted by amending the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region Regulation on Anti-Extremism to authorise the local government to set up “education and transformation organisations.” The second involves active engagement in shaping international public opinion. Consequently, Chinese diplomats, such as the ambassador to Indonesia and India, and embassies in countries like Pakistan are engaging with the local press and people to manage the public discourse. Along with this, Xinjiang Governor Shohrat Zakir discussed the government’s “counterterrorism, vocational education and training” policies in a lengthy interview with Xinhua this week. At the same time, state broadcaster CCTV highlighted the apparent de-extremification and skilling work at re-education centers. The third component of this approach is to muzzle critical views where possible, for instance, in parts of Africa, leveraging the influence of Chinese media investments. The flip side of this short-sighted approach, however, is that it could sharpen the increasing global discourse around Chinese influence activities, leading to greater restrictions collaboration and Chinese investments.